Welcome back to Meena Kumari part 2! As I mentioned in the first part, this is almost entirely based on her classic biography, published within weeks of her death. It’s not a completely unreliable source, but it’s also the version that people were remembering just after she died. One thing that does seem clear is that she was a woman who never fully controlled her own destiny.
Usual Disclaimer: Everything I say here may or may not be true. I don’t actually know these people, this is just what is generally accepted by the public as the “truth” about Meena’s life. If you are new to the films, or somehow missed this part of Hindi film history, you can read this post to get the general background.
In the first section, I covered the first 19 years of Meena’s life. Born to two impoverished artists, a Bengali dancer and an Urdu singer, her father put her to work as a child, almost a toddler, and by age 4 she was supporting the household. Her father kept her under tight control for the next 14 years, watching her every move, bringing her from work to home and back again and allowing nothing else into her life. Meena fell in love with a magazine photo of a rising young director and poet, Kamal Amrohi, 14 years her senior and already married with 3 children. They met when he hired her for his next film, and had a magical romance, starting with a freak accident that placed her in the hospital and outside of her father’s control, and continuing with middle of the night phone calls while their respective households were asleep. Finally, after months of this, they decided to elope, but not tell anyone. Meena went back home after the ceremony, and stayed for several months, until her father found out and tried to convince her to break the marriage, which made her leave in a fury and finally move into her husband’s home.
Meena’s father wasn’t the first to suggest that the marriage had been a mistake, Kamal himself got cold feet shortly after the marriage, and sent her a note saying that he couldn’t make her happy, etc. etc. Meena refused the note, and declared she would be married to him until she died, and the secret relationship continued. Until things at her father’s home reached a breaking point and Meena ran to her husband’s home.
It’s a bit tricky to get a read on Kamal from this book, because the author Vinod is fighting against the mood of the time which painted him as the villain who killed his perfect wife through neglect. But in the present day, where Pakeezah is one of the greatest films of all time, Kamal has a much better reputation. So while Vinod was trying to present things in the best view possible in order to redeem Kamal’s reputation, I’m looking at it from the present day where Kamal is solidly redeemed and it feels like Vinod is weighing the scales too much on his side.
The extremist vision of him after her death was this ogre who abused her and sent her out to work everyday whether she wanted to or not and forbade her from having the children she craved, until she couldn’t take the abuse any more and left him. I don’t think it was that cut and dried, because marriages never are. Kamal probably didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, or even cruel. To his mind, Meena was a young romantic difficult girl and he kept trying to put some structure into her life, based on his reasonable expectations as a husband. And it was his responsibility as her husband to take charge of her finances, her contracts, and everything else in her life.
And Meena wanted it, at first. Poor Meena, she really couldn’t handle her own finances. It’s not that Kamal should have let her run her own life, because she couldn’t do that. But he could have helped her learn the tools she needed to survive instead of keeping her wrapped up and apart from everything else. Everyone in her life (except Dharmendra, I’ll get there in a bit) treated her as a child, kept her away from “reality”. And then would inevitably push her away and get angry with her when she failed to understand reality, even though they were the ones who made her that way! It happened with her father, he protected her from everything and then got mad when she couldn’t understand why her marriage might be a bad idea. And eventually, it happened with Kamal too.
Let me back up a second and talk about Meena’s career. Nowadays there is so much focus on heroines right at the start. And heroes, for that matter. They are kind of make-or-break from their very first role. For Meena, it was much more gradual. She had a mentor as a child, Vijay Bhatt (not related to the Alia Bhatt family), the founder of Prakash Studios. He helped her get her first job as an adult heroine, she got decent reviews, and as I said in the last post, Homi Wadia saw her and decided to start using her in his fantasy films. She got a lot of experience, and people liked the movies, but they didn’t exactly get her noticed as a “great actress.”
Her first real legit hit film was Baiju Bawra in 1952. Directed by Vijay Bhatt, her mentor since childhood. It was a hit based on the soundtrack, which featured classic Hindi style folk songs. It was filmed during the period when she was married but still living at home. It came out just as she moved in with Kamal. Baiju by itself was considered a fluke, a hit because of the soundtrack not the stars. And which unfairly made Meena a star.
(Doesn’t she look young?)
But she followed it up with a comedy, her film with Kamal (Tamasha). And then Parineeta, Bimal Roy’s first Hindi film. And after that, there was no stopping her. She was in BR Chopra’s first film too, Chandni Chowk. And in Do Bigha Zameen, the first Indian film to win the International Prize at Cannes. And in her second film with her husband, Daera. All of them classics, featuring complex woman with difficult hearts played as only Meena could play them.
This creative peak was the era in which Kamal was controlling her life. He may not have been a great husband, but he was a terrific manager. He chose excellent scripts for her, got her to set on time and home with plenty of rest afterwards, and made sure she turned into the biggest female star India had seen. Which was also what helped to kill their marriage.
Well, a lot of things killed their marriage. For the first few years, they were ecstatically happy. Lots of interviews about how at the end of the day she is a wife, and they stay up all night reciting poetry to each other and playing cards, and so on.
But Kamal right from the beginning had certain expectations which Meena was just incapable of living up to. Specifically (and famously), he asked 3 things: that she return home by 6:30pm every night. That she not allow any other man into her make-up room. And that she never ride in cars with other men. I don’t think the problem actually was the restriction, I think it was that they were listed as “rules”. And who can resist breaking rules? Especially someone who is treated as a child in every way, and children always want to test boundaries.
(I’m guessing the man actually doing her make-up was allowed in the room according to these rules?)
But the bigger issue, as I see it, were in other arguments, like over the particular type of bread that Meena enjoyed eating. It was never available at home because Kamal didn’t like it. Meena saw this as great suffering, Kamal saw it as silly since she could just direct the kitchen to make it for her in advance. But Meena couldn’t do that, because she had never learned to think ahead, to direct her life in that way. And Kamal continued to expect this of her, even though he had helped to make her so helpless.
The end came spectacularly. After years of increasing tension over Meena “breaking” Kamal’s rules, rumors of abuse (although Kamal always denied it), and stories of Kamal’s public bitterness over coming to be known as “Mr. Meena Kumari”, it all came to a head one day on a film set. Kamal’s faithful employee, who years earlier had served as go-between in arranging their elopement, had been deputized to stay on set and watch Meena’s behavior. During a break in filming, Meena started up the stairs to her make-up room, inviting her good friend Gulzar (yes, THAT Gulzar! The one who is still the most sought after lyricist in the industry) to come join her. Kamal’s servant stepped in to stop her, there was a tussle on the stairs, and Meena was hit. She was furious! To have her behavior controlled by a servant, and to have his hand raised to her!
(Gulzar, then and now)
She rushed home and had a knock down drag out fight with Kamal, declaring she was leaving once and for all. Kamal’s version was that he offered her everything, including firing his faithful employee, and Meena wouldn’t listen. And that in his anger, he “raised his hand to her for the first time.” Now, other people in Meena’s life claim that this was far from the first time, that she used to show up on set with visible wounds. But the problem is, no one in Meena’s life was a truly objective witness.
During her marriage with Kamal, he controlled her money. Which meant her many many relatives didn’t get any of it. These same relatives benefited as soon as she left Kamal. And while Kamal declared they never loved or understood Meena and tried to drive them apart, the relatives declare that Kamal was abusive and drove Meena out of his house. The fact is, all of them ended up taking better care of her money than they did of her.
This was in 1964. They had been living together 11 years. Meena was the top heroine in the industry. Back in the early years of their marriage, Kamal had started working on a script inspired by his beloved wife. It was to be her greatest role, and his greatest film. He spent years on prep work, finding locations, re-writing every line of dialogue, and so on and so on. Finally, in 1958, they were ready to start shooting. There was a grand Mahurat. They shot for several months, and then the problems in the marriage started effecting the film and filming was put on hold. Over the next several years, they entered a stand off. Meena would never say “no” to fulfilling this commitment, but Kamal could never bring himself to lower his pride enough to ask. And so nothing happened, for years nothing happened. And that’s how their marriage ended too. She walked out of Kamal’s house and straight into the house of her sister, married to comic actor Mehmood. And Kamal couldn’t quite bring himself to beg her to come back, and so she stayed.
Meena moved into a household in crisis. Her sister’s marriage was in trouble as well. And the helpful young agent and secretary Kishore Sharma who was living there, and who helped Meena figure out her new contracts and commitments, ended up eloping with her sister Madhu, breaking Madhu’s marriage with Mehmood.
(This is Mehmood, you’ve probably seen him in stuff! He’s been in a lot of stuff.)
The three of them, Kishore Sharma, Madhu, and Meena, along with an assortment of children, dogs, and hangers on all moved out to a new home, found by Kishore, and funded by Meena’s work. And thus the final period of Meena’s life began, this time controlled by a random assortment of relatives, her brother-in-law, her sisters (her oldest sister eventually came to live in the household as well), and anyone else who happened to turn up.